Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that the previous Government were not very assiduous about holding the meetings either?

Mr. Maude: I can take no responsibility for that, as I was not even in Parliament then, let alone in that Government.

Today's debate provides a welcome opportunity for me to commend in particular the work of the SIS and of Government communications headquarters, the agencies that fall within the portfolio that I shadow. We should recognise that the excellence of the SIS's work, and the height of its reputation, is one of that unique set of international assets--and not the least among them--that gives Britain a global reach, and which should give Britain a disproportionate influence in the world.

My dealings with those agencies as a Minister gave me a profound admiration for those who formed the service, and who demonstrate dedication, public service, resourcefulness and simple raw courage. Part of what the agencies give the country is the ability to help other, friendly countries with the intelligence input that they would otherwise lack. That gives us a greater influence that other countries simply do not have.

The agencies need proper resourcing, and proper commitment to their capability. Continuity is crucial, as they operate in a world that is not notably safer since the end of the cold war. There was a dreadful stability during the cold war, but the world was more predictable than it is today. Today's greater unpredictability, instability and turbulence means that there are greater opportunities for prosperity and peace, and great threats and risks. The Committee's interim report and the report published last November both give a glimpse of the types of threats and challenges that the services continue to face today.

The Committee noted that the observation by the Director-General of the Security Service that there is still a significant Russian intelligence activity in the UK.

29 Mar 2001 : Column 1132

That is of particular pertinence, given the recent US expulsions of Russian diplomats following the arrest of Alan Hanssen in Washington.

During his first year in office, Mr. Putin--a former KGB operative--is said to have been keen to place more emphasis on the gathering of foreign intelligence. Several of his closest associates, including the head of the Security Council of the United Nations, are also KGB veterans and favour a very hard-headed approach to the west. We must maintain our vigilance and not threaten that which already works well. As the Committee says, it is appropriate that the Secret Intelligence Service has

The November report raised, and the interim report returned to, the important question of the co-ordination of our intelligence efforts through the Joint Intelligence Committee and other forums. In times when international crime and terrorism are increasingly global and complex, the need for better co-ordination is stronger than ever.

Any notion that we do not need the services in a post-cold war world should be dispelled by the reports and by the Home Secretary's recent publication of a list of proscribed organisations to be included in schedule 2 to the Terrorism Act 2000. The information on and assessment of those groups is the visible tip of an iceberg of painstaking secret work that is largely and properly hidden from our view. The quickest skim through that list reveals the complexity of the climate facing all our intelligence services as they work together.

Britain has always had a reputation for tolerance and as a refuge for those who have, down the centuries, faced persecution elsewhere. After all, most of us contain a large admixture of immigrant and refugee blood. The Opposition are glad to see that that warm welcome does not mean that this country can become a bolt hole for those who use violence and terror to achieve their ends, whatever those may be.

In recent months, London has been struck several times, apparently by a splinter group of Irish republicans who, although a tiny minority, want to disrupt the efforts of those who want peace. The Foreign Secretary mentioned last autumn's attack on SIS headquarters, and the recent car bomb outside BBC Television headquarters, both of which suggest an approach that is coldly discriminating in the perpetrators' search for publicity, but wickedly indiscriminate in the methods that they are prepared to use. We should all condemn those outrages, which can only strengthen our determination to banish that scourge for ever and to ensure that its perpetrators are tried and imprisoned.

The Committee expressed concern about the rise of cheque-book journalism in the agencies. The services appear to be adopting its recommendation that best practice solutions be adopted to screen out those who might be most likely to have recourse to telling their story in public. However, that task is made all the harder when, on the horizon, they see the impending publication of the memoirs of the former Director-General of the Security Service.

All members of the agencies accept on entry that their own knowledge of the value of their work has to compensate for the periodic frustration of not being able to talk about their job or their achievements. That self-discipline is a crucial virtue that underpins the

29 Mar 2001 : Column 1133

effectiveness of the agencies. For years, retired officers of MI5 and MI6, as the agencies once were, have taken it for granted that catharsis in print is simply not an option, not least because it will almost certainly prejudice the work and safety of their former colleagues and make intelligence gathering harder. After all, who will want to help his country, sometimes at great personal risk, if he fears that his identity might be revealed in a subsequent memoir?

It is hardly surprising that senior members of all the agencies are concerned that the book will have a negative effect on their ability to function safely and productively. I hope that Dame Stella Rimington and the Government will bear that in mind before publication. As I told the Foreign Secretary last year, any action that the Government choose to take to prevent publication will have our unqualified support.

Mr. Donald Anderson: Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, given the proliferation of those who want to sell their memoirs, it is surprising that the programme of work of the Committee does not include recruitment policies, which have in the past apparently proved incapable of identifying those who subsequently sell state secrets?

Mr. Maude: That is a fair point. However, if the right hon. Gentleman is suggesting that one should try to spot impending memoir writers at the outset, that is a selection process that might even defeat the fine minds of the agencies. I think that I pointed out that we should pay attention to that matter and I suspect that the Committee may well want to return to it.

All those threats, together with the many others to which the Foreign Secretary referred, are clear warnings that Britain must not drop its guard. We need our intelligence networks to maintain our first-class capacity to acquire and assess information from all over the world. Britain cannot work alone.

The greatest intensity of the special relationship between Britain and America lies in intelligence. That relationship has been built up over many years. Trust can be lost in a single day, but it takes decades to restore. In that regard, the relationship between GCHQ and the United States National Security Agency at Fort Meade is crucial. The UK-US arrangement is a powerful symbol of the closeness of our joint interests in the wider world.

The Committee noted:

That is an important two-way relationship. There is little doubt that the intelligence budget would have to soar were we not able to rely on the information provided by our transatlantic partners.

I regret that I must depart from the atmosphere of congenial consensus that has prevailed in debates on this subject. We hope that that close co-operation between the intelligence agencies will be secure. However, I must say--and this is the right occasion to say it--that the

29 Mar 2001 : Column 1134

Government's agreement to move towards a European army may well threaten that capability. [Interruption.] The Foreign Secretary has started to emit low noises, but this is an annual opportunity to talk about the work of the intelligence agencies. It is essential to their work that the special, close and intense relationship with our transatlantic partners in the United States should remain intact and fruitful. If we see that there is a potential threat to that working relationship, it is our duty to raise it in the House and we will do so. If that means departing from the peaceful atmosphere of harmony that has prevailed, then so be it. We will not be deterred from raising those matters.

An overt sign of the potential dangers, although very low key perhaps, was the fact that the European Parliament last year opened an investigation into Echelon--the intelligence-sharing network of which the UK and the US are vital parts. As the declaration made after the Franco-German summit in December 1999 made clear, European defence will require intelligence sharing. The declaration stated:

The Government may say that there is nothing incompatible between the UK-US arrangement and moves discussed at Helsinki and given effect to at Nice to create a

and the


The Foreign Secretary cannot be unaware of the strong strand of opinion--perhaps the dominant strand, particularly among the ruling class, if one can call it that, in France--that believes that Britain has to choose between the transatlantic relationship and a full commitment to the European defence capability. We do not believe that we have to make that choice, but others do.

Recently, a French official was quoted as arguing that the British would not be able to play a leading role in the EU unless they jettisoned their special intelligence links with the US. The direct quote was:

I have recently been told by a very senior French journalist--[Hon. Members: "A journalist?"] Yes, a journalist. He may be a maverick and he may not reflect any current of opinion in France at all, but I doubt it. All the evidence is that he is not a maverick and that he strongly reflects opinion in France. He said that Britain must choose whether it is to be pro-European or pro-American.

Next Section

IndexHome Page